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Board Gets Tough on Pedestrian Safety

But more needs to be done, according to citizen group

August 1, 2002

The Route 1 corridor through Mount Vernon has had its share of pedestrian fatalities and near-death accidents this year. Almost all fatalities were the result of people trying to cross the busy divided highway where there were no crosswalks or sidewalks. In two separate cases in less than four months, a man and a woman were killed by motorists as they attempted to cross Richmond Highway, their deaths coming only a few feet of each other.

Dave Lyons has seen too many pedestrian accidents in his 20 years of service as a paramedic supervisor. A year ago, after he retired, he started the Safe Crossings Campaign, a citizens group designed to pressure county government to provide more pedestrian-friendly facilities.

"There is nothing to stop any official from the county from pounding the table and saying this is what we're going to do," he said.

Lyons said he was cautiously optimistic about the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor's July 22 decision to look into the problem of pedestrian crashes in the county.

"I think it's a move, but a tentative move in the right direction," he said.

Last year, 19 pedestrians were killed and 335 injured in traffic accidents.

LAST WEEK'S board decision asked the county's Department of Transportation to create a pedestrian program manager without hiring any additional staff. The board also directed county staff to review the most dangerous intersections in the county before the end of this year. Staffers and hired consultants will also look at bus stops in the county to make sure that they are easily and safely accessible by people on foot. The Police Department is also preparing a bilingual safety brochure.

The police brochure will cost $7,500 to produce and distribute and the bus stop review will cost $1.47 million in consulting fees. County Executive Anthony Griffin said using regular county staff to perform the review would take too long.

Some supervisors expressed reservations over the impacts the new programs will have on an already tight county budget.

"We're playing games with the budget," said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville). He said he was wary of committing vast sums of money outside of the budget process.

He also expressed doubts as to the feasibility of reshuffling the Department of Transportation.

"At some point this department is going to explode," he said.

But the transportation department's ability to absorb a new position without hiring additional staff shows how well-managed it is, countered Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence).

"I think that's a model for county government," he said.

The discussion prompted Supervisor Elaine McConnell, who chairs the board's transportation subcommittee, to remind her colleagues about the gravity of the problem.

"I don't think we should quibble about the position," she said.

Arlington County already has a pedestrian and bicycle planner and Montgomery County has a pedestrian safety engineer and a pedestrian safety coordinator on staff.

DRIVERS WHO FAIL to yield to pedestrians will also face $100-$500 fines, following the board's decision. Fairfax County was authorized to levy the fines after the General Assembly passed enabling legislation at its last session. Before the board's action, the highest fine possible for failing to yield to a pedestrian was $25. Fairfax county staff will put up signs at intersections, much like those already in Arlington, informing drivers of the fines.

Connolly stressed that under Virginia law, drivers can change lanes or drive around pedestrians and still comply with the law requiring them to yield. By contrast, Maryland requires drivers to come to a full stop for pedestrians.

He suggested that the board, as part of its legislative agenda, ask the General Assembly at its next session to bring the Virginia Code closer to the Maryland Code. But Arlington County has been trying to get Richmond to toughen the laws on drivers for the past two years with no success.

Also, as a separate board matter, Supervisors Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and Gerald Hyland (D-Mt. Vernon), whose districts include the Route 1 corridor, earmarked 5 percent of their offices' annual budget to a county fund for sidewalk construction.

LYONS HAILED Kauffman's and Hyland's decision and called on the other supervisors to take action quickly rather than embark on a lengthy review process.

"There are some things that have to be done now that could be done very quickly that would have an immediate impact on saving lives," he said.

He listed concrete islands between lanes of traffic, countdown signals for street lights and signs forbidding drivers to turn right on red as possible improvements.

"What we won't abide is if this is another way to put this in another long-term study," he said. "We know where the problems are. We're going to push for these much needed engineering changes."

"You do need areas and islands of safety because it cuts [pedestrians'] little death march in half," he added.

Rather than make what he called "piecemeal" improvements to single intersections, the county ought to look into making comprehensive changes that would result in fewer accidents, he said. For instance, the county should slow down its development until adequate pedestrian facilities are in place.

"The philosophy has to be not just look, but let's not build first and worry about people later," he said. That was the cause, he added, at the recently complicated South County Government Center on Route 1, where the county only installed a traffic light after complaints from the Safe Crossings Campaign.

The board seemed to take a step in that direction last Monday when it asked staff to keep pedestrian safety in mind in zoning issues and land use reviews.

BUT CITIZENS should not expect improvements overnight, said Chris Wells, the newly-appointed pedestrian program manager at the Department of Transportation.

"As an engineer, you can't take the risk of just doing something," he said. "There are engineering standards that have to be met."

Wells added that he envisioned his new role as a coordinator between various county and state agencies to make sure that pedestrian safety remains a priority.

Because all roads in Fairfax County are owned and operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, any improvements must be first vetted by VDOT. Despite VDOT's recent funding difficulties, Wells said he was hopeful that the county could continue to work cooperatively with VDOT as it has in the past.

"This is very much going to be a joint effort with the VDOT staff," he said.